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Struggles with English take a toll on Buffalo students

Graduating high school is a struggle for many kids in Buffalo, but none more so than for those learning English.

They may understand little to nothing of what’s taught in class, or sit quietly in the back afraid to ask for help, or silently grapple with the emotional trauma they carry with them.

Only about one in four English language learners from the Class of 2017 graduated on time last year. More than 40 percent dropped out somewhere between the start of high school and graduation day.

That is raising alarm bells, most recently from a group that understands the struggles and is speaking up on behalf of these students, many of whom are kids of refugee and immigrant families that have proliferated in Buffalo in recent years.

“To us, this is really a crisis,” said Haoua Hamza, an associate professor in the College of Education at Niagara University. “It’s an issue for our families and there aren’t adequate resources to address it.”

Hamza is a member of the Buffalo Immigrant Leadership Team, a project of VOICE-Buffalo, the community organizing network.

BILT, as it is known, is comprised of immigrants and former refugees who have resettled here from around the world and banded together with a common goal of addressing social justice issues for newcomers to Buffalo.

Education for their kids is at the top of the list.

The fledgling group – with a board of nine and a core of about 20 – first raised concerns in 2016 over issues at Lafayette International School. Since then, it has broadened its agenda to shine a spotlight on the low graduation rates and high dropout rates of Buffalo’s English language-learners – ELLs, for short.

The Buffalo Public Schools now educate more than 6,000 of these students.

“We feel the city has done a very good job at being a refugee city,” said Brian Zralek, lead organizer for BILT, “but when it comes to educating the kids, they need to take this next step.”

The Buffalo Public Schools, as a whole, had a graduation rate of 64 percent last year. For the ELLs, it was 27 percent.

The dropout rate for Buffalo schools, as a whole, was 18 percent last year. For ELLs, it was 42 percent.

Most of the remaining ELLs, who had neither graduated nor dropped out, were still enrolled after four years.

“It’s not just a Buffalo issue,” said Abja Midha, deputy director of The Education Trust-New York, a non-profit that advocates for students of color and low income.

“Statewide,” she said, “we see this trend where the dropout rate is higher than the graduation rate for English language learners.”

This comes at a time when the numbers of English language learners have not only been growing, but are more widely dispersed throughout districts, Midha said. That’s why you’re seeing the state Education Department and advocacy groups, like BILT, lobbying for additional funding to support this group of students, she said.

“There really needs to be greater attention paid to English language learners in high school,” Midha said. “There needs to be more programming for English language learners. We need to see more bilingual programs that serve English language learners. They are a growing population and the system needs to catch up.”

Progress, but not enough

The school district, though, has made strides for English language learners within the past couple of years under Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Among them: the opening of a Newcomer Academy to provide more English and academic support to Buffalo’s brand-new immigrants; relaunching Lafayette as an international school; revamping the process for testing and placing ELLs when they first arrive in the district; and doubling to more than 200 the number of instructors teaching English as a new language to those who need the most help.

"We have done a lot to try to make an equal and high quality educational opportunity for all of our students," Cash said.

And graduation rates for ELLs, in fact, have gone up over the past five years, state data shows. The rate rose from 18 percent in 2013 to 27 percent last year.

Compounding the problem, though, was an accompanying rise in the dropout rate for ELLs, from 35 percent in 2013 to 42 percent last year.

"That's unacceptable," Cash said of the numbers.

The district, he said, will continue to make progress on what is a complex issue.

A deeper look at the numbers provide some clues to that complexity.

For example, more than half of the English language learners in the Class of 2017 had been in Buffalo Public Schools for three years or less, compared to research that shows it can take up to seven years for them to understand grade-level content, said Nadia Nashir, assistant superintendent for multilingual education.

Many of those also came with little to no formal literacy skills in their native language, along with complex social and psychological needs from their traumatic journey to the United States. Some arrived at such a late age that they are considered "dropouts" once they age out of school at 21 with no diploma.

“So you’re coming in at 9th grade, you’ve only been in Buffalo schools for less than three years and you’re required to earn 21 credits and pass five Regents exams,” Nashir said.

The numbers also showed 112 students who were supposed to earn a diploma the year prior stayed for a fifth year to graduate in 2017. More than 80 percent of those students ended up graduating.

“One of the challenges our multilingual learners have is time,” said Nashir, an English language learner herself at one time. “They have double the work, while they’re trying to learn the content and they’re trying to learn basic literacy skills.”

Challenges in school and out

BILT, which recently voiced its concerns to the Board of Education, sat down with district officials and both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue and work together on this problem.

The group has members who have first-hand experience, like Beh Meh.

Meh, a Burmese refugee who came to Buffalo at age 10, described how difficult it is for ELLs to grasp the language and how long it takes to feel comfortable enough to speak up in class.

Meh – who graduated from Tapestry Charter School and is now a sophomore at SUNY Buffalo State – persisted, but her older brother dropped out in frustration after failing repeatedly to pass one of the Regents exams.

“I came at a young age,” said Hemanta Adhikari, a BILT member from Nepal, “but high school kids have more trouble adapting. It’s going to be more challenging for them.”

Adhikar, who graduated from East High School and is now a sophomore at the University at Buffalo, described the struggles for ELLs outside the classroom – making friends, being bullied, isolation, the pressures to succeed in school and help support the family at home.

She and others are trying to initiate a mentorship program that would partner ELL students with someone who knows their language and has been through the same school experience.

“They’re going through so many things,” Adhikar said. “They need some kind of support outside the academics, as well.”

Immigrant parents, too, need to be part of the solution, said Jerry Manuel, co-chair of BILT.

"Because of the language and cultural differences, many refugee parents are not engaged in their child's education," Manuel said. "They feel nervous talking with teachers and principals whom they view as authority figures."

Classroom teachers also need help figuring out how to better communicate with ELLs, Hamza said.

“We want to be clear,” Hamza said, “we aren’t claiming the school district isn't doing anything. They are – and we acknowledge it.”

“But,” Hamza said, “it’s just not enough.”

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